Birth of Jesus

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
~ John 1:14

For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.
~ 2 Corinthians 8:9

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
~ Hebrews 2:9

And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
~ Matthew 1:25

But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
~ Psalm 22:6

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
~ Isaiah 53:2-3

Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
~ Matthew 13:55

Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible, Luke 2:1-13

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
~ Luke 2:1-14

Verse 1

Luke relates how it happened, that Christ was born in the city of Bethlehem, as his mother was living at a distance from her home, when she was approaching to her confinement. And first he sets aside the idea of human contrivance, (123) by saying, that Joseph and Mary had left home, and came to that place to make the return according to their family and tribe. If intentionally and on purpose (124) they had changed their residence that Mary might bring forth her child in Bethlehem, we would have looked only at the human beings concerned. But as they have no other design than to obey the edict of Augustus, we readily acknowledge, that they were led like blind persons, by the hand of God, to the place where Christ must be born. This may appear to be accidental, as everything else, which does not proceed from a direct human intention, is ascribed by irreligious men to Fortune. But we must not attend merely to the events themselves. We must remember also the prediction which was uttered by the prophet many centuries before. A comparison will clearly show it to have been accomplished by the wonderful Providence of God, that a registration was then enacted by Augustus Caesar, and that Joseph and Mary set out from home, so as to arrive in Bethlehem at the very point of time.

Thus we see that the holy servants of God, even though they wander from their design, unconscious where they are going, still keep the right path, because God directs their steps. Nor is the Providence of God less wonderful in employing the mandate of a tyrant to draw Mary from home, that the prophecy may be fulfilled. God had marked out by his prophet — as we shall afterwards see — the place where he determined that his Son should be born. If Mary had not been constrained to do otherwise, she would have chosen to bring forth her child at home. Augustus orders a registration to take place in Judea, and each person to give his name, that they may afterwards pay an annual tax, which they were formerly accustomed to pay to God. Thus an ungodly man takes forcible possession of that which God was accustomed to demand from his people. It was, in effect, reducing the Jews to entire subjection, and forbidding them to be thenceforth reckoned as the people of God.

Matters have been brought, in this way, to the last extremity, and the Jews appear to be cut off and alienated for ever from the covenant of God. At that very time does God suddenly, and contrary to universal expectation, afford a remedy. What is more, he employs that wicked tyranny for the redemption of his people. For the governor, (or whoever was employed by Caesar for the purpose,) while he executes the commission entrusted to him, is, unknown to himself, God’s herald, to call Mary to the place which God had appointed. And certainly Luke’s whole narrative may well lead believers to acknowledge, that Christ was led by the hand of God “ from his mother’s belly,” (Psalms 22:10.) Nor is it of small consequence (125) to the certainty of faith to know, that Mary was drawn suddenly, and contrary to her own intention, to Bethlehem, that “out of it might come forth” (Micah 5:2) the Redeemer, as he had been formerly promised.

1. The whole world This figure of speech (126) (by which the whole is taken for a part, or a part for the whole) was in constant use among the Roman authors, and ought not to be reckoned harsh. That this registration might be more tolerable and less odious, it was extended equally, I have no doubt, to all the provinces; though the rate of taxation may have been different. I consider this first registration to mean, that the Jews, being completely subdued, were then loaded with a new and unwonted yoke. Others read it, that this registration was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria; (127) but there is no probability in that view. The tax was, indeed, annual; but the registration did not take place every year. The meaning is, that the Jews were far more heavily oppressed than they had formerly been.

There is a diversity as to the name of the Proconsul. Some call him Cyrenius, ( Κυρήνιος,) and others, Quirinus or Quirinius But there is nothing strange in this;for we know that the Greeks, when they translate Latin names, almost always make some change in the pronunciation. But a far greater difficulty springs up in another direction. Josephus says that, while Archelaus was a prisoner at Vienna, (Ant. 17:13. 2,) Quirinus came as Proconsul, with instructions to annex Judea to the province of Syria, (xviii. 1.1.) Now, historians are agreed, that Archelaus reigned nine years after the death of his father Herod. It would therefore appear, that there was an interval of about thirteen years between the birth of Christ and this registration; for almost all assent to the account given by Epiphanius, that Christ was born in the thirty-third year of Herod: that is, four years before his death.

Another circumstance not a little perplexing is, that the same Josephus speaks of this registration as having happened in the thirty-seventh year after the victory at Actium, (128) (Ant. 18:2. 1.) If this be true, Augustus lived, at the utmost, not more than seven years after this event; which makes a deduction of eight or nine years from his age: for it is plain from the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel, that he was at that time only in his fifteenth year. But, as the age of Christ is too well known to be called in question, it is highly probable that, in this and many other passages of Josephus’s History, his recollection had failed him. Historians are agreed that Quirinus was Consul nineteen years, or thereby, before the victory over Antony, which gave Augustus the entire command of the empire: and so he must have been sent into the province at a very advanced age. Besides, the same Josephus enumerates four governors of Judea within eight years; while he acknowledges that the fifth was governor for fifteen years. That was Valerius Gratus, who was succeeded by Pontius Pilate.

Another solution may be offered. It might be found impracticable to effect the registration immediately after the edict had been issued: for Josephus relates, that Coponius was sent with an army to reduce the Jews to subjection, (Ant. 18:2.2) from which it may easily be inferred, that the registration was prevented, for a time, by popular tumult. The words of Luke bear this sense, that, about the time of our Lord’s birth, an edict came out to have the people registered, but that the registration could not take place till after a change of the kingdom, when Judea had been annexed to another province. This clause is accordingly added by way of correction. This first registration was made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria That is, it was then first carried into effect. (129)

But the whole question is not yet answered: for, while Herod was king of Judea, what purpose did it serve to register a people who paid no tribute to the Roman Empire? I reply: there is no absurdity in supposing that Augustus, by way of accustoming the Jews to the yoke, (for their obstinacy was abundantly well-known,) chose to have them registered, even under the reign of Herod. (130) Nor did Herod’s peculiar authority as king make it inconsistent that the Jews should pay to the Roman Empire a stipulated sum for each man under the name of a tax: for we know that Herod, though he was called a king, held nothing more than a borrowed power, and was little better than a slave. On what authority Eusebius states that this registration took place by an order of the Roman Senate, I know not.

(123) “ Il monstre que cela ne s’est point fait par advis ou conseil humain.” —”He shows that this was not by human advice or plan.”

(124) “ Data opera et consulto;” — “ de propos delibere;” — “of deliberate purpose.”

(125) “ Neque parum facit;” — “ ce n’est pas un poinct de petite importance.”

(126) “Synecdoche.”

(127) The reader will observe that this is the rendering of the authorized English version. — Ed.

(128) “ Victoriae Actiacae.” — “ C’est une victoire qu’ent Auguste a la bataille sur mer contre Antoine et Cleopatra, aupres de la ville nommee Actium.” — “That is, a victory which Augustus had in the naval battle which he fought against Antony and Cleopatra, near the town called Actium.”

(129) “ Elle fut lors executee, et trouva-on facon d’en venir a bout.” — “It was then executed, and a way was found of succeeding in it.”

(130) “ Sub Herode;” — “ combien qu’ils fussent sujets d’Herode;” — “though they were subjects of Herod.”

Verse 7

7. Because there was no room for them in the inn We see here not only the great poverty of Joseph, but the cruel tyranny which admitted of no excuse, but compelled Joseph to bring his wife along with him, at an inconvenient season, when she was near the time of her delivery. Indeed, it is probable that those who were the descendants of the royal family were treated more harshly and disdainfully than the rest. Joseph was not so devoid of feeling as to have no concern about his wife’s delivery. He would gladly have avoided this necessity: but, as that is impossible, he is forced to yield, (131) and commends himself to God. We see, at the same time, what sort of beginning the life of the Son of God had, and in what cradle (132) he was placed. Such was his condition at his birth, because he had taken upon him our flesh for this purpose, that he might, “empty himself” (Philippians 2:7) on our account. When he was thrown into a stable, and placed in a manger, and a lodging refused him among men, it was that heaven might be opened to us, not as a temporary lodging, (133) but as our eternal country and inheritance, and that angels might receive us into their abode.

(131) “ Il baisse la teste;” — “he bows the head.”

(132) “ Comment il a este heberge.”

(133) “ Non modo hospitii jure;” — “ non point comme un logis pour y estre hebergez en passant.”

Verse 8

8. And there were shepherds It would have been to no purpose that Christ was born in Bethlehem, if it had not been made known to the world. But the method of doing so, which is described by Luke, appears to the view of men very unsuitable. First, Christ is revealed but to a few witnesses, and that too amidst the darkness of night. Again, though God had, at his command, many honorable and distinguished witnesses, he passed by them, and chose shepherds, persons of humble rank, and of no account among men. Here the reason and wisdom of the flesh must prove to be foolishness; and we must acknowledge, that “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:25) excels all the wisdom that exists, or appears to exist, in the world. But this too was a part of the “emptying of himself,” (Philippians 2:6) not that any part of Christ’s glory should be taken away by it, but that it should lie in concealment for a time. Again, as Paul reminds us, that the gospel is mean according to the flesh, “that our faith should stand” in the power of the Spirit, not in the “lofty (142) words of human wisdom,” or in any worldly splendor, (143) (1 Corinthians 2:4;) so this inestimable “treasure” has been deposited by God, from the beginning, “in earthen vessels,” (2 Corinthians 4:7,) that he might more fully try the obedience of our faith. If then we desire to come to Christ, let us not be ashamed to follow those whom the Lord, in order to cast down the pride of the world, has taken, from among the dung (144) of cattle, to be our instructors.

(142) “ En paroles magnifiques;” — “in magnificent words.”

(143) “ En quelque lustre et apparence du monde;” — “in any luster and display of the world.”

(144) “ Ex pecudum stercore;” — “ sur la fiente des bestes.”

Verse 9

9. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them He says, that the glory of the Lord (145) shone around the shepherds, by which they perceived him to be an angel. (146) For it would have been of little avail to be told by an angel what is related by Luke, if God had not testified, by some outward sign, that what they heard proceeded from Him. The angel appeared, not in an ordinary form, or without majesty, but surrounded with the brightness of heavenly glory, to affect powerfully the minds of the shepherds, that they might receive the discourse which was addressed to them, as coming from the mouth of God himself. Hence the fear, of which Luke shortly afterwards speaks, by which God usually humbles the hearts of men, (as I have formerly explained,) and disposes them to receive his word with reverence.

(145) “ La clarte du Seigneur;” — “the brightness of the Lord.”

(146) “ c’a este afin qu’ils cogneussent que c’estoit l’ange de Dieu qui parloit;” — “it was in order that they might know that it was the angel of the Lord that spoke.”

Verse 10

10. Fear not The design of this exhortation is to alleviate their fear. For, though it is profitable for the minds of men to be struck with awe, that they may learn to “give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name,” (Psalms 29:2;) yet they have need, at the same time, of consolation, that they may not be altogether overwhelmed. For the majesty of God could not but swallow up the whole world, if there were not some mildness to mitigate the terror which it brings. And so the reprobate fall down lifeless at the sight of God, because he appears to them in no other character than that of a judge. But to revive the minds of the shepherds, the angel declares that he was sent to them for a different purpose, to announce to them the mercy of God. When men hear this single word, that God is reconciled to them, it not only raises up those who are fallen down, but restores those who were ruined, and recalls them from death to life.

The angel opens his discourse by saying, that he announces great joy; and next assigns the ground or matter of joy, that a Savior is born These words show us, first, that, until men have peace with God, and are reconciled to him through the grace of Christ, all the joy that they experience is deceitful, and of short duration. (147) Ungodly men frequently indulge in frantic and intoxicating mirth; but if there be none to make peace between them and God, the hidden stings of conscience must produce fearful torment. Besides, to whatever extent they may flatter themselves in luxurious indulgence, their own lusts are so many tormentors. The commencement of solid joy is, to perceive the fatherly love of God toward us, which alone gives tranquillity to our minds. And this “joy,” in which, Paul tells us, “the kingdom of God” consists, is “in the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 14:17.) By calling it great joy, he shows us, not only that we ought, above all things, to rejoice in the salvation brought us by Christ, but that this blessing is so great and boundless, as fully to compensate for all the pains, distresses, and anxieties of the present life. Let us learn to be so delighted with Christ alone, that the perception of his grace may overcome, and at length remove from us, all the distresses of the flesh. (148)

Which shall be to all the people Though the angel addresses the shepherds alone, yet he plainly states, that the message of salvation which he brings is of wider extent, so that not only they, in their private capacity, may hear it, but that others may also hear. Now let it be understood, that this joy was common to all people, because, it was indiscriminately offered to all. For God had promised Christ, not to one person or to another, but to the whole seed of Abraham. If the Jews were deprived, for the most part, of the joy that was offered to them, it arose from their unbelief; just as, at the present day, God invites all indiscriminately to salvation through the Gospel, but the ingratitude of the world is the reason why this grace, which is equally offered to all, is enjoyed by few. Although this joy is confined to a few persons, yet, with respect to God, it is said to be common. When the angel says that this joy shall be to all the people, he speaks of the chosen people only; but now that, the middle wall of partition” (Ephesians 2:14) has been thrown down, the same message has reference to the whole human race. (149) For Christ proclaims peace, not only, to them that are nigh, “but to them that are, far off,” (Ephesians 2:17,) to “strangers” (Ephesians 2:12) equally with citizens. But as the peculiar covenant with the Jews lasted till the resurrection of Christ, so the angel separates them from the rest of the nations.

(147) “ Ce n’est que fumee;” — “it is only smoke.”

(148) “ Parquoy apprenons de prendre tellement notre contentement en Christ seul, que le sentiment de sa grace nous face surmonter toutes choses qui sont dures a la chair, et finalement en oste toute l’amertume.”— “Wherefore, let us learn to take our satisfaction, in such a manner, in Christ alone, that the feeling of his grace may make us rise above all things that are unpleasant to the flesh, and finally may take away all their bitterness.”

(149) “ Au reste, il est bien vray que l’ange parle seulement du peuple esleu, assavoir des Juifs; mais pourceque maintenant la paroy qui faisoit separation est rompue, la mesme ambassade s’addresse aujourdhui a tout le genre humain.” — “Besides, it is very true that the angel speaks only of the elect people, namely, the Jews; but because now the wall of partition which made a separation is broken down, the same message is addressed, at the present day, to all the human race.”

Verse 11

11. This day is born to you Here, as we lately hinted, the angel expresses the cause of the joy. This day is born the Redeemer long ago promised, who was to restore the Church of God to its proper condition. The angel does not speak of it as a thing altogether unknown. He opens his embassy by referring to the Law and the Prophets; for had he been addressing heathens or irreligious persons, it would have been of no use to employ this mode of speaking: this day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord For the same reason, he mentions that he was born in the city of David, which could serve no purpose, but to recall the remembrance of those promises which were universally known among the Jews. Lastly, the angel adapted his discourse to hearers who were not altogether unacquainted with the promised redemption. With the doctrine of the Law and the Prophets he joined the Gospel, as emanating from the same source. Now, since the Greek word Greek, as Cicero assures us, has a more extensive meaning than the Latin word Servator, and as there is no Latin noun that corresponds to it, I thought it better to employ a barbarous term, than to take anything away from the power of Christ. And I have no doubt, that the author of the Vulgate, and the ancient doctors of the Church, had the same intention. (150) Christ is called Savior, (151) because he bestows a complete salvation. The pronoun to you (152) is very emphatic; for it would have given no great delight to hear that the Author of salvation was born, unless each person believed that for himself he was born. In the same manner Isaiah says, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given,” (Isaiah 9:6;) and Zechariah, “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee lowly,” (Zechariah 9:9.)

(150) He refers to his use of the Latin word Salvator , for which there is no classical authority. The apology may be deemed unnecessary; but Calvin was entitled to be more sensitive on this point than many modern scholars. The purity of his style discovers so perfect an acquaintance with the writers of the Augustan age, that it must have given him uneasiness to depart from their authorized terms. He pleads high authority for the liberty he had taken. Cicero, whose command of the resources of his native tongue will not be questioned, acknowledges that there is no Latin word which conveys the full import of the Greek word σωτ́ηρ, and in this, as well as many other instances, calls in the aid of a richer and more expressive language than his own. — Ed.

(151) “ Salvator .”

(152) “ Au reste, ce n’est pas sans cause que ce mot Vous est adjouste: et il est bien a poiser. Car il ne serviroit gueres de savoir que le Sauveur est nay, sinon qu’un chacun appliquast cela a sa personne, s’asseurant que c’est pour lui qu’est nay le Fils de Dieu.” — “Besides, it is not without reason that this word You is added; and it is well to weigh it. For it would hardly be of service to know that the Savior is born, unless each applied that to his own person, being persuaded that it is for him that the Savior is born.”

Verse 12

12. And this shall be a sign to you (153) The angel meets the prejudice which might naturally hinder the faith of the shepherds; for what a mockery is it, that he, whom God has sent to be the King, and the only Savior, is seen lying in a manger! That the mean and despicable condition in which Christ was might not deter the shepherds from believing in Christ, the angel tells them beforehand what they would see. This method of proceeding, which might appear, to the view of men, absurd and almost ridiculous, the Lord pursues toward us every day. Sending down to us from heaven the word of the Gospel, he enjoins us to embrace Christ crucified, and holds out to us signs in earthly and fading elements, which raise us to the glory of a blessed immortality. Having promised to us spiritual righteousness, he places before our eyes a little water: by a small portion of bread and wine, he seals, (154) the eternal life of the soul. (155) But if the stable gave no offense whatever to the shepherds, so as to prevent them from going to Christ to obtain salvation, or from yielding to his authority, while he was yet a child; no sign, however mean in itself, ought to hide his glory from our view, or prevent us from offering to him lowly adoration, now that he has ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.

(153) “ Et vous aurez ces enseignes ;” — “and you shall have these signs.”

(154) “ Eternam animi vitam obsignat.”—Our rendering is close. But what is sealed? Is it meant, that the mere act of partaking the Lord’s Supper places beyond a doubt the salvation of the worshipper, or even gives to it any additional certainty? In some loose sense of this sort, the phrase is often enough used even by Protestant divines. It is satisfactory to have Calvin’s own authority for the meaning of this passage. “ Il seelle la promesse .” — “ He seals the promise.” The meaning is, that God ratifies his word. By condescending to employ outward symbols, together with his holy word, for expressing the blessings of salvation he holds out to his people an additional testimony, and in this manner grants a strong confirmation to their faith. — Ed.

(155) It may be proper to exhibit the entire sentence referred to in the former note. “ Comme nous ayant promis la justice spirituelle, il nous met devant les yeux un peu d’eau: par un petit morceau de pain et une goutte de vin, il seelle la promesse qu’il a faite de la vie eternelle de nos ames.” — “As, having promised to us spiritual righteousness, he places before our eyes a little water: by a small morsel of bread and a drop of wine, he seals the promise which he has made of the eternal life of our souls.”

Verse 13

13. And suddenly there was present with the angel a multitude An exhibition of divine splendor had been already made in the person of a single angel. But God determined to adorn his own Son in a still more illustrious manner, This was done to confirm our faith as truly as that of the shepherds. Among men, the testimony of “ two or three witnesses ” (Matthew 18:16) is sufficient to remove all doubt. But here is a heavenly host, with one consent and one voice bearing testimony to the Son of God. What then would be our obstinacy, if we refused to join with the choir of angels, in singing the praises of our salvation, which is in Christ? Hence we infer, how abominable in the sight of God must unbelief be, which disturbs this delightful harmony between heaven and earth. Again, we are convicted of more than brutal stupidity, if our faith and our zeal to praise God are not inflamed by the song which the angels, with the view of supplying us with the matter of our praise, sang in full harmony. Still farther, by this example of heavenly melody, the Lord intended to recommend to us the unity of faith, and to exhort us to join with one consent in singing his praises on earth.

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