Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
PREFACE TO VOLUME FIVE
(It may be proper to apprise the reader that the volume to which this preface was originally prefixed included the Acts of the Apostles, which in the present edition will commence the second volume, in order to secure a more equal division of the New Testament—the commentary on the remaining books being less extended than the author contemplated.—Ed.)
The one half of our undertaking upon the New Testament is now, by the assistance of divine grace, finished, and presented to the reader, who, it is hoped, the Lord working with it, may hereby be somewhat helped in understanding and improving the sacred history of Christ and his apostles, and in making it, as it certainly is, the best exposition of our creed, in which these inspired writers are summed up, as is intimated by that evangelist who calls his gospel A Declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Lu. 1:1. And, as there is no part of scripture in the belief of which it concerns more to be established, so there is none with which the generality of Christians are more conversant, or which they speak of more frequently. It is therefore our duty, by constant pains in meditation and prayer, to come to an intimate acquaintance with the true intent and meaning of these narratives, what our concern is in them, and what we are to build upon them and draw from them; that we may not rest in such a knowledge of them as that which we had when in our childhood we were taught to read English out of the translation and Greek out of the originals of these books. We ought to know them as the physician does his dispensatory, the lawyer his books of reports, and the sailor his chart and compass; that is, to know how to make use of them in that to which we apply ourselves as our business in this world, which is to serve God here and enjoy him hereafter, and both in Christ the Mediator.
The great designs of the Christian institutes (of which these books are the fountains and foundations) were, to reduce the children of men to the fear and love of God, as the commanding active principle of their observance of him, and obedience to him,—to show them the way of their reconciliation to him and acceptance with him, and to bring them under obligations to Jesus Christ as Mediator, and thereby to engage them to all instances of devotion towards God and justice and charity towards all men, in conformity to the example of Christ, in obedience to his law, and in pursuance of his great intentions. What therefore I have endeavoured here has been with this view, to make these writings serviceable to the faith, holiness, and comfort of good Christians.
Now that these writings, thus made use of to serve these great and noble designs, may have their due influence upon us, it concerns us to be well established in our belief of their divine origin. And here we have to do with two sorts of people. Some embrace the Old Testament, but set that up in opposition to the New, pleading that, if that be right, this is wrong; and these are the Jews. Others, though they live in a Christian nation, and by baptism wear the Christian name, yet, under pretence of freedom of thought, despise Christianity, and consequently reject the New Testament, and therefore the Old of course. I confess it is strange that any now who receive the Old Testament should reject the New, since, besides all the particular proofs of the divine authority of the New Testament, there is such an admirable harmony between it and the Old. It agrees with the Old in all the main intentions of it, refers to it, builds upon it, shows the accomplishment of its types and prophecies, and thereby is the perfection and crown of it. Nay, if it be not true, the Old Testament must be false, and all the glorious promises which shine so brightly in it, and the performance of which was limited within certain periods of time, must be a great delusion, which we are sure they are not, and therefore must embrace the New Testament to support the reputation of the Old.
Those things in the Old Testament which the New Testament lays aside are the peculiarity of the Jewish nation and the observances of the ceremonial law, both which certainly were of divine appointment; and yet the New Testament does not at all clash with the Old; for,
1. They were always designed to be laid aside in the fulness of time. No other is to be expected than that the morning-star should disappear when the sun rises; and the latter parts of the Old Testament often speak of the laying aside of those things, and of the calling in of the Gentiles.
2. They were very honourable laid aside, and rather exchanged for that which was more noble and excellent, more divine and heavenly. The Jewish church was swallowed up in the Christian, the mosaic ritual in evangelical institutions. So that the New Testament is no more the undoing of the Old than the sending of a youth to the university is the undoing of his education in the grammar-school.
3. Providence soon determined this controversy (which is the only thing that seemed a controversy between the Old Testament and the New) by the destruction of Jerusalem, the desolations of the temple, the dissolution of the temple-service, and the total dispersion of all the remains of the Jewish nation, with a judicial defeat of all the attempts to incorporate it again, now for above 1600 years; and this according to the express predictions of Christ, a little before his death. And, as Christ would not have the doctrine of his being the Messiah much insisted on till the great conclusive proof of it was given by his resurrection from the dead, so the repeal of the ceremonial law, as to the Jews, was not much insisted on, but their keeping up the observation of it was connived at, till the great conclusive proof of its repeal was given by the destruction of Jerusalem, which made the observation of it for ever impracticable. And the manifest tokens of divine wrath which the Jews, considered as a people, even notwithstanding the prosperity of particular persons among them, continue under to this day, is a proof, not only of the truth of Christ’s predictions concerning them, but that they lie under a greater guilt than that of idolatry (for which they lay under a desolation of 70 years), and this can be no other than crucifying Christ, and rejecting his gospel.
Thus evident it is that, in our expounding of the New Testament, we are not undoing what we did in expounding the Old; so far from it that we may appeal to the law and the prophets for the confirmation of the great truth which the gospels are written to prove—That our Lord Jesus is the Messiah promised to the fathers, who should come, and we are to look for no other. For though his appearing did not answer the expectation of the carnal Jews, who looked for a Messiah in external pomp and power, yet it exactly answered all the types, prophecies, and promises, of the Old Testament, which all had their accomplishment in him; and even his ignominious sufferings, which are the greatest stumbling-block to the Jews, were foretold concerning the Messiah; so that if he had not submitted to them we had failed in our proof; so fat it is from being weakened by them. Bishop Kidder’s Demonstration of the Christian’s Messiah has abundantly made out this truth, and answered the cavils (for such they are, rather than arguments) of the Jews against it, above any in our language.
But we live in an age when Christianity and the New Testament are more virulently and daringly attacked by some within their own bowels than by those upon their borders. Never were Moses and his writings so arraigned and ridiculed by any Jews, or Mahomet and his Alcoran by any Mussulmans, as Christ and his gospel by men that are baptized and called Christians; and this, not under colour of any other divine revelation, but in contempt and defiance of all divine revelation; and not by way of complaint that they meet with that which shocks their faith, and which, through their own weakness, they cannot get over, and therefore desire to be instructed in, and helped in the understanding of, and the reconciling of them to the truth which they have received, but by way of resolute opposition, as if they looked upon it as their enemy, and were resolved by all means possible to be the ruin of it, though they cannot say what evil it has done to the world or to them. If the pretence of it has transported many in the church of Rome into such corruptions of worship and cruelties of government as are indeed the scandal of human nature, yet, instead of being thereby prejudiced against pure Christianity, they should the rather appear more vigorously in defence of it, when they see so excellent an institution as this is in itself so basely abused and misrepresented. They pretend to a liberty of thought in their opposition to Christianity, and would be distinguished by the name of free-thinkers. I will not here go about to produce the arguments which, to all that are not wilfully ignorant and prejudiced against the truth, are sufficient to prove the divine origin and authority of the doctrine of Christ. The learned find much satisfaction in reading the apologies of the ancients for the Christian religion, when it was struggling with the polytheism and idolatry of the Gentiles. Justin Martyr and Tertullian, Lactantius and Minutius Felix, wrote admirable in defence of Christianity, when it was further sealed by the blood of the martyrs. But its patrons and advocates in the present day have another sort of enemies to deal with. The antiquity of the pagan theology, its universal prevalence, the edicts of princes, and the traditions and usages of the country, are not now objected to Christianity; but I know not what imaginary freedom of thought, and an unheard-of privilege of human nature, are assumed, not to be bound by any divine revelation whatsoever. Now it is easy to make out,
1. That those who would be thought thus to maintain a liberty of thinking as one of the privileges of human nature, and in defence of which they will take up arms against God himself, do not themselves think freely, nor give others leave to do so. In some of them a resolute indulgence of themselves in those vicious courses which they know the gospel if they admit it will make very uneasy to them, and a secret enmity to a holy heavenly mind and life, forbid them all free thought; for so strong a prejudice have their lusts and passions laid them under against the laws of Christ that they find themselves under a necessity of opposing the truths of Christ, upon which these laws are founded. Perit judicium, quando res transit in affectum—The judgment is overcome, when the decision is referred to the affections. Right or wrong, Christ’s bonds must be broken, and his cords cast from them; and therefore, how evident soever the premises be, the conclusion must be denied, if it tend to fasten these bands and cords upon them; and where is the freedom of thought then? While they promise themselves liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome of the same is he brought into bondage. In others of them, a reigning pride and affectation of singularity, and a spirit of contradiction, those lusts of the mind, which are as impetuous and imperious as any of the lusts of the flesh and of the world, forbid a freedom of thinking, and enslave the soul in all its enquiries after religion. Those can no more think freely who resolve they will think by themselves than those can who resolve to think with their neighbours. Nor will they give others liberty to think freely; for it is not by reason and argument that they go about to convince us, but by jest and banter, and exposing Christianity and its serious professors to contempt. Now, considering how natural it is to most men to be jealous for their reputation, this is as great an imposition as can possibly be; and the unthinking are as much kept from free-thinking by the fear of being ridiculed in the club of those who set up for oracles in reason as by the fear of being cursed, excommunicated, and anathematized, by the counsel of those who set up for oracles in religion. And where is the free-thinking then?
2. That those who will allow themselves a true liberty of thinking, and will think seriously, cannot but embrace all Christ’s sayings, as faithful, and well worthy of all acceptation. Let the corrupt bias of the carnal heart towards the world, and the flesh, and self (the most presumptuous idol of the three) be taken away, and let the doctrine of Christ be proposed first in its true colours, as Christ and his apostles have given it to us, and in its true light, with all its proper evidence, intrinsic and extrinsic; and then let the capable soul freely use its rational powers and faculties, and by the operation of the Spirit of grace, who alone works faith in all that believe, even the high thought, when once it becomes a free thought, freed from the bondage of sin and corruption, will, by a pleasing and happy power, be captivated, and brought into obedience to Christ; and, when he thus makes it free, it will be free indeed. Let any one who will give himself leave to think impartially, and be at the pains to think closely, read Mr. Baxter’s Reasons for the Christian Religion, and he will find both that it goes to the bottom, and lays the foundation deep and firm, and also that it brings forth the top-stone in a believer’s consent to God in Christ, to the satisfaction of any that are truly concerned about their souls and another world. The proofs of the truths of the gospel have been excellently well methodized, and enforced likewise, by bishop Stillingfleet, in his Origines Sacrae; by Grotius, in his book of the Truth of the Christian Religion; by Dr. Whitby, in his General Preface to his Commentary on the New Testament; and of late by Mr. Ditton, very argumentatively, in his discourse concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; and many others have herein done worthily. And I will not believe any man who rejects the New Testament and the Christian religion to have thought freely upon the subject, unless he has, with humility, seriousness, and prayer to God for direction, deliberately read these or the like books, which, it is certain, were written both with liberty and clearness of thought.
For my own part, if my thoughts were worth any one’s notice, I do declare I have thought of this great concern with all the liberty that a reasonable soul can pretend to, or desire; and the result is that the more I think, and the more freely I think, the more fully I am satisfied that the Christian religion is the true religion, and that which, if I submit my soul sincerely to it, I may venture my soul confidently upon. For when I think freely,
1. I cannot but think that the God who made man a reasonable creature by his power has a right to rule him by his law, and to oblige him to keep his inferior faculties of appetite and passion, together with the capacities of thought and speech, in due subjection to the superior powers of reason and conscience. And, when I look into my own heart, I cannot but think that it was this which my Maker designed in the order and frame of my soul, and that herein he intended to support his own dominion in me.
2. I cannot but think that my happiness is bound up in the favour of God, and that his favour will, or will not, be towards me, according as I do, or do not, comply with the laws and ends of my creation,—that I am accountable to this God, and that from him my judgment proceeds, not only fr this world, but for my everlasting state.
3. I cannot but think that my nature is very unlike what the nature of man was as it came out of the Creator’s hands,—that it is degenerated from its primitive purity and rectitude. I find in myself a natural aversion to my duty, and to spiritual and divine exercises, and a propensity to that which is evil, such an inclination towards the world and the flesh as amounts to a propensity to backslide from the living God.
4. I cannot but think that I am therefore, by nature, thrown out of the favour of God; for though I think he is a gracious and merciful God, yet I think he is also a just and holy God, and that I am become, by sin, both odious to his holiness and obnoxious to his justice. I should not think freely, but very partially, if I should think otherwise. I think I am guilty before God, have sinned, and come short of glorifying him, and of being glorified with him.
5. I cannot but think that, without some special discovery of God’s will concerning me, and good-will to me, I cannot possibly recover his favour, be reconciled to him, or be so far restored to my primitive rectitude as to be capable of serving my Creator, and answering the ends of my creation, and becoming fit for another world; for the bounties of Providence to me, in common with the inferior creatures, cannot serve either as assurances that God is reconciled tome or means to reconcile me to God.
6. I cannot but think that the way of salvation, both from the guilt and from the power of sin, by Jesus Christ, and his mediation between God and man, as it is revealed by the New Testament, is admirable will fitted to all the exigencies of my case, to restore me both to the favour of God and to the government and enjoyment of myself. Here I see a proper method for the removing of the guilt of sin (that I may not die by the sentence of the law) by the all-sufficient merit and righteousness of the Son of God in our nature, and for the breaking of the power of sin (that I may not die by my own disease) by the all-sufficient influence and operation of the Spirit of God upon our nature. Every malady has herein its remedy, every grievance is hereby redressed, and in such a way as advances the honour of all the divine attributes and is suited and accommodated to human nature.
7. I cannot but think that what I find in myself of natural religion does evidently bear testimony to the Christian religion; for all that truth which is discovered to me by the light of nature is confirmed, and more clearly discovered, by the gospel; the very same thing which the light of nature gives me a confused sight of (like the sight of men as trees walking) the New Testament gives me a clear and distinct sight of. All that good which is pressed upon me by the law of nature is more fully discovered to me, and I find myself much more strongly bound to it by the gospel of Christ, the engagements it lays upon me to my duty, and the encouragements and assistances it gives me in my duty. And this is further confirming to me that there, just there, where natural light leaves me at a loss, and unsatisfied—tells me that hitherto it can carry me, but no further—the gospel takes me up, helps me out, and gives me all the satisfaction I can desire, and that is especially in the great business of the satisfying of God’s justice for the sin of man. My own conscience asks, Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the most high God? Will he be pleased with thousands of rams? But I am still at a loss; I cannot frame a righteousness from any thing I am, or have, in myself, or from any thing I can do for God or present to God, wherein I dare appear before him; but the gospel comes, and tells me that Jesus Christ had made his soul an offering for sin, and God has declared himself well-pleased with all believers in him; and this makes me easy.
8. I cannot but think that the proofs by which God has attested the truth of the gospel are the most proper that could be given in a case of this nature—that the power and authority of the Redeemer in the kingdom of grace should be exemplified to the world, not by the highest degree of the pomp and authority of the kings of the earth, as the Jews expected, but by the evidences of his dominion in the kingdom of nature, which is a much greater dignity and authority than any of the kings of the earth ever pretended to, and is no less than divine. And his miracles being generally wrought upon men, not only upon their bodies, as they were mostly when Christ was here upon earth, but, which is more, upon their minds, as they were mostly after the pouring out of the Spirit in the gift of tongues and other supernatural endowments, were the most proper confirmations possible of the truth of the gospel, which was designed for the making of men holy and happy.
9. I cannot but think that the methods taken for the propagation of this gospel, and the wonderful success of those methods, which are purely spiritual and heavenly, and destitute of all secular advantages and supports, plainly show that it was of God, for God was with it; and it could never have spread as it did, in the face of so much opposition, if it had not been accompanied with a power from on high. And the preservation of Christianity in the world to this day, notwithstanding the difficulties it has struggles with, is to me a standing miracle for the proof of it.
10. I cannot but think that the gospel of Christ has had some influence upon my soul, has had such a command over me, and been such a comfort to me, as is a demonstration to myself, though it cannot be so to another, that it is of God. I have tasted in it that the Lord is gracious; and the most subtle disputant cannot convince one who has tasted honey that it is not sweet.
And now I appeal to him who knows the thoughts and intents of the heart that in all this I think freely (if it be possible for a man to know that he does so), and not under the power of any bias. Whether we have reason to think that those who, without any colour of reason, not only usurp, but monopolize, the character of free-thinkers, do so, let those judge who easily observe that they do not speak sincerely, but industriously dissemble their notions; and one instance I cannot but notice of their unfair dealing with their readers—that when, for the diminishing of the authority of the New Testament, they urge the various readings of the original, and quote an acknowledgment of Mr. Gregory of Christ-church, in his preface to his Works, That no profane author whatsoever, etc., and yet suppress what immediately follows, as the sense of that learned man upon it, That this is an invincible reason for the scriptures’ part, etc.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
The mystery of Christ’s incarnation is to be adored, not pried into. If we know not the way of the Spirit in the formation of common persons, nor how the bones are formed in the womb of any one that is with child (Eccles. 11:5), much less do we know how the blessed Jesus was formed in the womb of the blessed virgin. When David admires how he himself was made in secret, and curiously wrought (Ps. 139:13–16), perhaps he speaks in the spirit of Christ’s incarnation. Some circumstances attending the birth of Christ we find here which are not in Luke, though it is more largely recorded here. Here we have,
I. Mary’s espousal to Joseph. Mary, the mother of our Lord, was espoused to Joseph, not completely married, but contracted; a purpose of marriage solemnly declared in words de futuro—that regarding the future, and a promise of it made if God permit. We read of a man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her, Deu. 20:7. Christ was born of a virgin, but a betrothed virgin, 1. To put respect upon the marriage state, and to recommend it as honourable among all, against that doctrine of devils which forbids to marry, and places perfection in the single state. Who more highly favoured than Mary was in her espousals? 2. To save the credit of the blessed virgin, which otherwise would have been exposed. It was fit that her conception should be protected by a marriage, and so justified in the eye of the world. One of the ancients says, It was better it should be asked, Is not this the son of a carpenter? than, Is not this the son of a harlot? 3. That the blessed virgin might have one to be the guide of her youth, the companion of her solitude and travels, a partner in her cares, and a help meet for her. Some think that Joseph was now a widower, and that those who are called the brethren of Christ (ch. 13:55), were Joseph’s children by a former wife. This is the conjecture of many of the ancients. Joseph was just man, she a virtuous woman. Those who are believers should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers: but let those who are religious choose to marry with those who are so, as they expect the comfort of the relation, and God’s blessing upon them in it. We may also learn, from this example, that it is good to enter into the married state with deliberation, and not hastily—to preface the nuptials with a contract. It is better to take time to consider before than to find time to repent after.
II. Her pregnancy of the promised seed; before they came together, she was found with child, which really was of the Holy Ghost. The marriage was deferred so long after the contract that she appeared to be with child before the time came for the solemnizing of the marriage, though she was contracted before she conceived. Probably, it was after her return from her cousin Elizabeth, with whom she continued three months (Lu. 1:56), that she was perceived by Joseph to be with child, and did not herself deny it. Note, Those in whom Christ is formed will show it: it will be found to be a work of God which he will own. Now we may well imagine, what a perplexity this might justly occasion to the blessed virgin. She herself knew the divine original of this conception; but how could she prove it? She would be dealt with as a harlot. Note, After great and high advancements, lest we should be puffed up with them, we must expect something or other to humble us, some reproach, as a thorn in the flesh, nay, as a sword in the bones. Never was any daughter of Eve so dignified as the Virgin Mary was, and yet in danger of falling under the imputation of one of the worse crimes; yet we do not find that she tormented herself about it; but, being conscious of her own innocence, she kept her mind calm and easy, and committed her cause to him that judgeth righteously. Note, those who take care to keep a good conscience may cheerfully trust God with the keeping of their good names, and have reason to hope that he will clear up, not only their integrity, but their honour, as the sun at noon day.
III. Joseph’s perplexity, and his care what to do in this case. We may well imagine what a great trouble and disappointment it was to him to find one he had such an opinion of, and value for, come under the suspicion of such a heinous crime. Is this Mary? He began to think, "How may we be deceived in those we think best of! How may we be disappointed in what we expect most from!" He is loth to believe so ill a thing of one whom he believed to be so good a woman; and yet the matter, as it is too bad to be excused, is also too plain to be denied. What a struggle does this occasion in his breast between that jealousy which is the rage of man, and is cruel as the grave, on the one hand, and that affection which he has for Mary on the other!
Observe, 1. The extremity which he studied to avoid. He was not willing to make her a public example. He might have done so; for, by the law, a betrothed virgin, if she played the harlot, was to be stoned to death, Deu. 22:23, 24. But he was not willing to take the advantage of the law against her; if she be guilty, yet it is not known, nor shall it be known from him. How different was the spirit which Joseph displayed from that of Judah, who in a similar case hastily passed that severe sentence, Bring her forth and let her be burnt! Gen. 38:24. How good it is to think on things, as Joseph did here! Were there more of deliberation in our censures and judgments, there would be more of mercy and moderation in them. Bringing her to punishment is here called making her a public example; which shows what is the end to be aimed at in punishment—the giving of warning to others: it is in terrorem—that all about may hear and fear. Smite the scorner, and the simple will beware.
Some persons of a rigorous temper would blame Joseph for his clemency: but it is here spoken of to his praise; because he was a just man, therefore he was not willing to expose her. He was a religious, good man; and therefore inclined to be merciful as God is, and to forgive as one that was forgiven. In the case of the betrothed damsel, if she were defiled in the field, the law charitably supposed that she cried out (Deu. 22:26), and she was not to be punished. Some charitable construction or other Joseph will put upon this matter; and herein he is a just man, tender of the good name of one who never before had done anything to blemish it. Note, It becomes us, in many cases, to be gentle towards those that come under suspicion of having offended, to hope the best concerning them, and make the best of that which at first appears bad, in hopes that it may prove better. Summum just summa injuria—The rigour of the law is (sometimes) the height of injustice. That court of conscience which moderates the rigour of the law we call a court of equity. Those who are found faulty were perhaps overtaken in the fault, and are therefore to be restored with the spirit of meekness; and threatening, even when just, must be moderated.
2. The expedient he found out for avoiding this extremity. He was minded to put her away privily, that is, to give a bill of divorce into her hand before two witnesses, and so to hush up the matter among themselves. Being a just man, that is, a strict observer of the law, he would not proceed to marry her, but resolved to put her away; and yet, in tenderness for her, determined to do it as privately as possible. Note, The necessary censures of those who have offended ought to be managed without noise. The words of the wise are heard in quiet. Christ himself shall not strive nor cry. Christian love and Christian prudence will hide a multitude of sins, and great ones, as far as may be done without having fellowship with them.
IV. Joseph’s discharge from this perplexity by an express sent from heaven, v. 20, 21. While he thought on these things and knew not what to determine, God graciously directed him what to do, and made him easy. Note, Those who would have direction from God must think on things themselves, and consult with themselves. It is the thoughtful, not the unthinking, whom God will guide. When he was at a loss, and had carried the matter as far as he could in his own thoughts, then God came in with advice. Note, God’s time to come in with instruction to his people is when they are nonplussed and at a stand. God’s comforts most delight the soul in the multitude of its perplexed thoughts. The message was sent to Joseph by an angel of the Lord, probably the same angel that brought Mary the tidings of the conception—the angel Gabriel. Now the intercourse with heaven, by angels, with which the patriarchs had been dignified, but which had been long disused, begins to be revived; for, when the First-begotten is to be brought into the world, the angels are ordered to attend his motions. How far God may now, in an invisible way, make use of the ministration of angels, for extricating his people out of their straits, we cannot say; but this we are sure of, they are all ministering spirits for their good. This angel appeared to Joseph in a dream when he was asleep, as God sometimes spoke unto the fathers. When we are most quiet and composed we are in the best frame to receive the notices of the divine will. The Spirit moves on the calm waters. This dream, no doubt, carried its own evidence along with it that it was of God, and not the production of a vain fancy. Now,
1. Joseph is here directed to proceed in his intended marriage. The angel calls him, Joseph, thou son of David; he puts him in mind of his relation to David, that he might be prepared to receive this surprising intelligence of his relation to the Messiah, who, every one knew, was to be a descendant from David. Sometimes, when great honours devolve upon those who have small estates, they care not for accepting them, but are willing to drop them; it was therefore requisite to put this poor carpenter in mind of his high birth: "Value thyself. Joseph, thou art that son of David through whom the line of the Messiah is to be drawn." We may thus say to every true believer, "Fear not, thou son of Abraham, thou child of God; forget not the dignity of thy birth, thy new birth." Fear not to take Mary for thy wife; so it may be read. Joseph, suspecting she was with child by whoredom, was afraid of taking her, lest he should bring upon himself either guilt or reproach. No, saith God, Fear not; the matter is not so. Perhaps Mary had told him that she was with child by the Holy Ghost, and he might have heard what Elizabeth said to her (Lu. 1:43), when she called her the mother of her Lord; and, if so, he was afraid of presumption in marrying one so much above him. But, from whatever cause his fears arose, they were all silenced with this word, Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife. Note, It is a great mercy to be delivered from our fears, and to have our doubts resolved, so as to proceed in our affairs with satisfaction.
2. He is here informed concerning that holy thing with which his espoused wife was now pregnant. That which is conceived in her is of a divine original. He is so far from being in danger of sharing in an impurity by marrying her, that he will thereby share in the highest dignity he is capable of. Two things he is told,
(1.) That she had conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost; not by the power of nature. The Holy Spirit, who produced the world, now produced the Saviour of the world, and prepared him a body, as was promised him, when he said, Lo, I come, Heb. 10:5. Hence he is said to be made of a woman (Gal. 4:4), and yet to be that second Adam that is the Lord from heaven, 1 Co. 15:47. He is the Son of God, and yet so far partakes of the substance of his mother as to be called the fruit of her womb, Lu. 1:42. It was requisite that is conception should be otherwise than by ordinary generation, that so, so though he partook of the human nature, yet he might escape the corruption and pollution of it, and not be conceived and shapen in iniquity. Histories tell us of some who vainly pretended to have conceived by a divine power, as the mother of Alexander; but none ever really did so, except the mother of our Lord. His name in this, as in other things, is Wonderful. We do not read that the virgin Mary did herself proclaim the honour done to her; but she hid it in her heart, and therefore God sent an angel to attest it. Those who seek not their own glory shall have the honour that comes from God; it is reserved for the humble.
(2.) That she should bring forth the Saviour of the world (v. 21). She shall bring forth a Son; what he shall be is intimated,
[1.] In the name that should be given to her Son: Thou shalt call his name Jesus, a Saviour. Jesus is the same name with Joshua, the termination only being changed, for the sake of conforming it to the Greek. Joshua is called Jesus (Acts 7:45; Heb. 4:8), from the Seventy. There were two of that name under the Old Testament, who were both illustrious types of Christ, Joshua who was Israel’s captain at their first settlement in Canaan, and Joshua who was their high priest at their second settlement after the captivity, Zec. 6:11, 12. Christ is our Joshua; both the Captain of our salvation, and the High Priest of our profession, and, in both, our Saviour— a Joshua who comes in the stead of Moses, and does that for us which the law could not do, in that it was weak. Joshua had been called Hosea, but Moses prefixed the first syllable of the name Jehovah, and so made it Jehoshua (Num. 13:16), to intimate that the Messiah, who was to bear that name, should be Jehovah; he is therefore able to save to the uttermost, neither is there salvation in any other.
[2.] In the reason of that name: For he shall save his people from their sins; not the nation of the Jews only (he came to his own, and they received him not), but all who were given him by the Father’s choice, and all who had given themselves to him by their own. He is a king who protects his subjects, and, as the judges of Israel of old, works salvation for them. Note, those whom Christ saves he saves from their sins; from the guilt of sin by the merit of his death, from the dominion of sin by the Spirit of his grace. In saving them from sin, he saves them from wrath and the curse, and all misery here and hereafter. Christ came to save his people, not in their sins, but from their sins; to purchase for them, not a liberty to sin, but a liberty from sins, to redeem them from all iniquity (Tit. 2:14); and so to redeem them from among men (Rev. 14:4) to himself, who is separate from sinners. So that those who leave their sins, and give up themselves to Christ as his people, are interested in the Saviour, and the great salvation which he has wrought out, Rom. 11:26.
V. The fulfilling of the scripture in all this. This evangelist, writing among the Jews, more frequently observes this than any other of the evangelists. Here the Old Testament prophecies had their accomplishment in our Lord Jesus, by which it appears that this was he that should come, and we are to look for no other; for this was he to whom all the prophets bore witness. Now the scripture that was fulfilled in the birth of Christ was that promise of a sign which God gave to king Ahaz (Isa. 7:14), Behold a virgin shall conceive; where the prophet, encouraging the people of God to hope for the promised deliverance from Sennacherib’s invasion, directs them to look forward to the Messiah, who was to come of the people of the Jews, and the house of David; whence it was easy to infer, that though that people and that house were afflicted, yet neither the one nor the other could be abandoned to ruin, so long as God had such an honour, such a blessing, in reserve for them. The deliverances which God wrought for the Old-Testament church were types and figures of the great salvation by Christ; and, if God will do the greater, he will not fail to do the less.
The prophecy here quoted is justly ushered in with a Behold, which commands both attention and admiration; for we have here the mystery of godliness, which is, without controversy, great, that God was manifested in the flesh.
1. The sign given is that the Messiah shall be born of a virgin. A virgin shall conceive, and, by her, he shall be manifested in the flesh. The word Almah signifies a virgin in the strictest sense, such as Mary professes herself to be (Lu. 1:34), I know not a man; nor had it been any such wonderful sign as it was intended for, if it had been otherwise. It was intimated from the beginning that the Messiah should be born of a virgin, when it was said that he should be the seed of the woman; so the seed of the woman as not to be the seed of any man. Christ was born of a virgin not only because his birth was to be supernatural, and altogether extraordinary, but because it was to be spotless, and pure, and without any stain of sin. Christ would be born, not of an empress or queen, for he appeared not in outward pomp or splendour, but of a virgin, to teach us spiritual purity, to die to all the delights of sense, and so to keep ourselves unspotted from the world and the flesh that we may be presented chaste virgins to Christ.
2. The truth proved by this sign is, that he is the Son of God, and the Mediator between God and man: for they shall call his name Immanuel; that is, he shall be Immanuel; and when it is said, He shall be called, it is meant, he shall be, the Lord our righteousness. Immanuel signifies God with us; a mysterious name, but very precious; God incarnate among us, and so God reconcilable to us, at peace with us, and taking us into covenant and communion with himself. The people of the Jews had God with them, in types and shadows, dwelling between the cherubim; but never so as when the Word was made flesh—that was the blessed Shechinah. What a happy step is hereby taken toward the settling of a peace and correspondence between God and man, that the two natures are thus brought together in the person of the Mediator! by this he became an unexceptionable referee, a days-man, fit to lay his hand upon them both, since he partakes of the nature of both. Behold, in this, the deepest mystery, and the richest mercy, that ever was. By the light of nature, we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel, we see him as Immanuel, God with us, in our own nature, and (which is more) in our interest. Herein the Redeemer commended his love. With Christ’s name, Immanuel, we may compare the name given to the gospel church (Eze. 48:35). Jehovah Shammah—The Lord is there; the Lord of hosts is with us.
Nor is it improper to say that the prophecy which foretold that he should be called Immanuel was fulfilled, in the design and intention of it, when he was called Jesus; for if he had not been Immanuel— God with us, he could not have been Jesus—a Saviour; and herein consists the salvation he wrought out, in the bringing of God and man together; this was what he designed, to bring God to be with us, which is our great happiness, and to bring us to be with God, which is our great duty.
VI. Joseph’s obedience to the divine precept (v. 24). Being raised from sleep by the impression which the dream made upon him, he did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, though it was contrary to his former sentiments and intentions; he took unto him his wife; he did is speedily, without delay, and cheerfully, without dispute; he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Extraordinary direction like this we are not now to expect; but God has still ways of making known his mind in doubtful cases, by hints of providence, debates of conscience, and advice of faithful friends; by each of these, applying the general rules of the written word, we should, therefore, in all the steps of our life, particularly the great turns of it, such as this of Joseph’s, take direction from God, and we shall find it safe and comfortable to do as he bids us.
VII. The accomplishment of the divine promise (v. 25). She brought forth her first-born son. The circumstances of it are more largely related, Lu. 2:1, etc. Note, That which is conceived of the Holy Ghost never proves abortive, but will certainly be brought forth in its season. What is of the will of the flesh, and of the will of man, often miscarries; but, if Christ be formed in the soul, God himself has begun the good work which he will perform; what is conceived in grace will no doubt be brought forth in glory.
It is here further observed, 1. That Joseph, though he solemnized the marriage with Mary, his espoused wife, kept at a distance from her while she was with child of this Holy thing; he knew her not till she had brought him forth. Much has been said concerning the perpetual virginity of our Lord: Jerome was very angry with Helvidius for denying it. It is certain that it cannot be proved from scripture. Dr. Whitby inclines to think that when it is said, Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born, it is intimated that, afterwards, the reason ceasing, he lived with her, according to the law, Ex. 21:10. 2. That Christ was the first-born; and so he might be called though his mother had not any other children after him, according to the language of scripture. Nor is it without a mystery that Christ is called her first-born, for he is the first-born of every creature, that is, the Heir of all things; and he is the first-born among many brethren, that in all things he may have the pre-eminence. 3. That Joseph called his name Jesus, according to the direction given him. God having appointed him to be the Saviour, which was intimated in his giving him the name Jesus, we must accept of him to be our Saviour, and, in concurrence with that appointment, we must call him Jesus, our Saviour.