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 (Eccl. 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, Deut. 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, Isa. not this the son of a carpenter? than, Isa. 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 (Matt. 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 (Luke 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. Isa. 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, Deut. 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 (Deut. 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, Matt. 1:20, 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 (Luke 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 Cor. 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, Luke 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 (Matt. 1:21). 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, Zech. 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 (Titus 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 (Luke 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 (Ezek. 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 (Matt. 1:24). 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 (Matt. 1:25). She brought forth her first-born son. The circumstances of it are more largely related, Luke 2:1 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, Exod. 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.
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