Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. Now when Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea, 175 in the times of Herod the King, lo, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, 2. Saying, Where is he who is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the East, and have come that we may worship him. 3. And having heard these things, Herod the King was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4. And having assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired at them where Christ should be born. 5. But they said to him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it has been written by the prophet: 6. And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art by no means the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come the leader, 176 who shall feed my people Israel.
1. Now when Jesus had been born How it came about that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew does not say. The Spirit of God, who had appointed the Evangelists to be his clerks, 177 appears purposely to have regulated their style in such a manner, that they all wrote one and the same history, with the most perfect agreement, but in different ways. It was intended, that the truth of God should more clearly and strikingly appear, when it was manifest that his witnesses did not speak by a preconcerted plan, but that each of them separately, without paying any attention to another, wrote freely and honestly what the Holy Spirit dictated.
This is a very remarkable narrative. God brought Magi from Chaldea, to come to the land of Judea, for the purpose of adoring Christ, in the stable where he lay, amidst the tokens, not of honor, but of contempt. It was a truly wonderful purpose of God, that he caused the entrance of his Son into the world to be attended by deep meanness, and yet bestowed upon him illustrious ornaments, both of commendation and of other outward signs, that our faith might be supplied with everything necessary to prove his Divine Majesty.
A beautiful instance of real harmony, amidst apparent contradiction, is here exhibited. A star from heaven announces that he is a king, to whom a manger, intended for cattle, serves for a throne, because he is refused admittance among the lowest of the people. His majesty shines in the East, while in Judea it is so far from being acknowledged, that it is visited by many marks of dishonor. Why is this? The heavenly Father chose to appoint the star and the Magi as our guides, to lead directly to his Son: while he stripped him of all earthly splendor, for the purpose of informing us that his kingdom is spiritual. This history conveys profitable instruction, not only because God brought the Magi to his Son, as the first-fruits of the Gentiles, but also because he appointed the kingdom of his Son to receive their commendation, and that of the star, for the confirmation of our faith; that the wicked and malignant contempt of his nation might not render him less estimable in our eyes.
Magi is well known to be the name given by the Persians and Chaldees to astrologers and philosophers: and hence it may readily be conjectured that those men came from Persia. 178 As the Evangelist does not state what was their number, it is better to be ignorant of it, than to affirm as certain what is doubtful. Papists have been led into a childish error, of supposing that they were three in number: because Matthew says, that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, (Mt 2:11.) But the historian does not say, that each of them separately presented his own gift. He rather says, that those three gifts were presented by them in common. That ancient author, whoever he may be, whose imperfect Commentary on Matthew bears the name of Chrysostom, and is reckoned among Chrysostom’s works, says that they were fourteen. This carries as little probability as the other. It may have come from a tradition of the Fathers, but has no solid foundation. But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings, because they found in another passage a prediction, that
the kings of Tarshish, and of the Isles, and of Sheba,
would offer gifts to the Lord, (Ps 72:10.)
Ingenious workmen, truly, who, in order to present those men in a new shape, have begun with turning the world from one side to another: for they have changed the south and west into the east! Beyond all doubt, they have been stupified by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at the gross ignorance of those who have not scrupled to adulterate “and, change the truth of God into a lie,” (Ro 1:25.)
The first inquiry here is: Was this star one of those which the Lord created in the beginning (Gen. 1:1, 16) to “garnish the heavens?” (Job 26:13.) Secondly, Were the magi led by their acquaintance with astrology to conclude that it pointed out the birth of Christ? On these points, there is no necessity for angry disputation: but it may be inferred from the words of Matthew, that it was not a natural, but an extraordinary star. It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled 179 a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.
This almost decides likewise the second question: for since astrology is undoubtedly confined within the limits of nature, its guidance alone could not have conducted the Magi to Christ; so that they must have been aided by a secret revelation of the Spirit. I do not go so far as to say, that they derived no assistance whatever from the art: but I affirm, that this would have been of no practical advantage, if they had not been aided by a new and extraordinary revelation.
2. Where is he who has been born King? The notion of some commentators, that he is said to have been born King, by indirect contrast with one who has been made or created a king, appears to me too trifling. I rather suppose the Magi to have simply meant, that this king had been recently born, and was still a child, by way of distinguishing him from a king who is of age, and who holds the reins of government: for they immediately add, that they had been drawn, not by the fame of his exploits, or by any present exhibitions of his greatness, but by a heavenly presage of his future reign. But if the sight of a star had so powerful an effect on the Magi, woe to our insensibility, who, now that Christ the King has been revealed to us, are so cold in our inquiries after him!
And have come that we may worship him The reason why the star had been exhibited was, to draw the Magi into Judea, that they might be witnesses and heralds of the new King. 180 So far as respects themselves, they had not come to render to Christ such pious worship, as is due to the Son of God, but intended to salute him, according to the Persian custom, 181 as a very eminent King. For their views, with regard to him, probably went no farther, than that his power and exalted rank would be so extraordinary as to impress all nations with just admiration and reverence. It is even possible, that they wished to gain his favor beforehand, that he might treat them favorably and kindly, if he should afterwards happen to possess dominion in the east.
3. Herod the king was troubled Herod was not unacquainted with the predictions, which promised to the Jews a King, who would restore their distressful and ruinous affairs to a prosperous condition. He had lived from a child among that nation, and was thoroughly acquainted with their affairs. Besides, the report was spread everywhere, and could not be unknown to the neighboring nations. Yet he is troubled, as if the matter had been new and unheard of; because he put no trust in God, and thought it idle to rely on the promises of a Redeemer; and particularly because, with the foolish confidence incident to proud men, he imagined that the kingdom was secure to himself and his descendants. But though, in the intoxication of prosperity, he was formerly accustomed to view the prophecies with scorn, the recollection of them now aroused him to sudden alarm. For he would not have been so strongly moved by the simple tale of the Magi, if he had not remembered the predictions, which he had formerly looked upon as harmless, 182 and of no importance. Thus, when the Lord has permitted unbelievers to sleep, he suddenly breaks their rest. 183
And all Jerusalem with him This may be explained in two ways. Either the people were roused, in a tumultuous manner, by the novelty of the occurrence, though the glad tidings of a king who had been born to them were cordially welcomed. Or the people, accustomed to distresses, and rendered callous by long endurance, dreaded a change which might introduce still greater calamities. For they were so completely worn down, and almost wasted, by continued wars, that their wretched and cruel bondage appeared to them not only tolerable, but desirable, provided it were accompanied by peace. This shows how little they had profited under God’s chastisements: for they were so benumbed and stupified, that the promised redemption and salvation almost stank 184 in their nostrils. Matthew intended, I have no doubt, to express their ingratitude, in being so entirely broken by the long continuance of their afflictions, as to throw away the hope and desire of the grace which had been promised to them.
4. Having assembled the priests Though deep silence prevailed respecting Christ in the Hall of Herod, yet, as soon as the Magi have thrown out the mention of a King, predictions are remembered, which formerly lay in oblivion. Herod instantly conjectures, that the King, about whom the Magi inquire, is the Messiah whom God had formerly promised, (Da 9:25.) Here again it appears, that Herod is seriously alarmed, when he puts such earnest inquiries; and no wonder. All tyrants are cowards, and their cruelty produces stronger alarm in their own breasts than in the breasts of others. Herod must have trembled more than others, because he perceived that he was reigning in opposition to God.
This new investigation shows, that the contempt of Christ, before the arrival of the Magi, must have been very deep. At a later period, the scribes and high priests labored with fury to corrupt the whole of the Scripture, that they might not give any countenance to Christ. But on the present occasion they reply honestly out of the Scripture, and for this reason, that Christ and his Gospel have not yet given them uneasiness. And so all ungodly persons find no difficulty in giving their assent to God on general principles; but when the truth of God begins to press them more closely, they throw out the venom of their rebellion.
We have a striking instance of this, in our own day, among the Papists. They freely own, that he is the only-begotten Son of God, clothed with our flesh, and acknowledge the one person of God-man, as subsisting in the two natures. But when we come to the power and office of Christ, a contest immediately breaks out; because they will not consent to take a lower rank, and much less to be reduced to nothing. In a word, so long as wicked men think that it is taking nothing from themselves, they will yield to God and to Scripture some degree of reverence. But when Christ comes into close conflict with ambition, covetousness, pride, misplaced confidence, hypocrisy, and deceit, they immediately forget all modesty, and break out into rage. Let us therefore learn, that the chief cause of blindness in the enemies of truth is to be found in their wicked affections, which change light into darkness.
6. And thou, Bethlehem The scribes quoted faithfully, no doubt, the words of the passage in their own language, as it is found in the prophet. But Matthew reckoned it enough to point out the passage; and, as he wrote in Greek, he followed the ordinary reading. This passage, and others of the same kind, readily suggest the inference, that Matthew did not compose his Gospel in the Hebrew language. It ought always to be observed that, whenever any proof from Scripture is quoted by the apostles, though they do not translate word for word, and sometimes depart widely from the language, yet it is applied correctly and appropriately to their subject. Let the reader always consider the purpose for which passages of Scripture are brought forward by the Evangelists, so as not to stick too closely to the particular words, but to be satisfied with this, that the Evangelists never torture Scripture into a different meaning, but apply it correctly in its native meaning. But while it was their intention to supply with milk children and “novices” (1Ti 3:6) in faith, who were not yet able to endure “strong meat,” (Heb 5:12,) there is nothing to prevent the children of God from making careful and diligent inquiry into the meaning of Scripture, and thus being led to the fountain by the taste which the apostles afford.
Let us now return to the prediction. Thus it stands literally in the Prophet:
“And thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little
among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall
he come forth to me, who is Ruler in Israel,” (Mic 5:2.)
For Ephratah Matthew has put Judah, but the meaning is the same; for Micah only intended, by this mark, to distinguish the Bethlehem of which he speaks, from another Bethlehem, which was in the tribe of Zebulun. There is greater difficulty in what follows: for the Prophet says, that Bethlehem is little, when reckoned among the governments of Judah, while Matthew, on the contrary: speaks highly of its rank as one of the most distinguished: thou art by no means the least among the princes of Judah This reason has induced some commentators to read the passage in the prophet as a question, Art thou little among the thousands of Judah? But I rather agree with those who think that Matthew intended, by this change of the language, to magnify the grace of God in making an inconsiderable and unknown town the birth-place of the highest King. Although Bethlehem received this distinguished honor, it was of no advantage to its inhabitants, but brought upon them a heavier destruction: for there an unworthy reception was given to the Redeemer. For he is to be Ruler, Matthew has put he shall feed, (ποιμανεῖ) But he has expressed both, when he says, that Christ is the leader, (ἡγούμενος,) and that to him is committed the office of feeding his people.
“(Cite) de Judee;” — “(city) of Judea.”
“Dux;” — “Conducteur.”
“Scribas;” — “greffiers.”—Clerks, not Authors in the ordinary meaning of that term, but persons who wrote to the dictation of another. This conveys the idea of what is frequently called plenary inspiration. If such a term as Clerk, or Penman, may be supposed to lower the sacred writers, it is not by a comparison of them with uninspired historians, the ablest of whom cannot, without arrogance, aspire to an equal level with those who wrote by inspiration. But when man is brought into a comparison with God, no language can express too strongly the infinite distance between the parties. The Evangelists do not ask the praise of invention, or judgment, or of anything else which would imply that the work was their own production. But they lay claim to a loftier and peculiar distinction, that they faithfully committed to writing that history which they were honored to receive from its Divine Author. Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, (2Pe 1:21.) — Ed.
“Le mot Grec, (μάγαι,) du quel use l'Evangeliste est celuy d'ou vient le mot de Magiciens: mais les Perses et Chaldeens nomment ainsi leurs Astrologues et Philosophes: et pourtant nous l'avons traduit par ce mot de Sages. Parquoy il y a grande apparence de dire qu'ils etoyent venus du pays des Perses.” — “The Greek word, (μάγοι,) which the Evangelist employs, is that from which the word Magicians is derived: but the Persians and Chaldees give this name also to their Astrologers and Philosophers: and therefore we have translated it by the word Sages, or Wise men. Wherefore there is great probability in saying that they had come from the country of the Persians.”
Calvin says, not that it was a comet, but that it resembled a comet; and it is probable enough that the meteor assumed that aspect. He refutes, in a masterly and conclusive manner, the supposition that it was “natural star,” but, with modesty and good sense, avoids shocking the prejudices of his age. Of astrology he speaks more doubtfully. If he had lent the countenance of his name to that pretended science, we ought not to have blamed him severely. Long after he had left the world, men of powerful minds, and of extensive attainments in science, found it no easy matter to disentangle themselves from its meshes, and to proclaim their freedom. But Calvin needs no vindication. He has left us a treatise, Adversus Astrologiam Judiciarium, "Against Judicial Astrology;" which Servetus, as much his inferior in philosophical views in sterling worth, brings forward as one of his charges. Damnatam a me fuisse Astrologiam conqueritur, says Calvin; "It is made a ground of complaint against me that I have condemned astrology." — Ed.
“Que la ils fussent comme herauts pour porter les nouvelles du nouveau Roy.” — “That there they might be as heralds, to carry the tidings of the new King.”
“Persico more;” — “selon la coustume de leur pays;” — “according to the custom of their country.”
“Lusoria;” alluding to the phrase used by Seneca and others, lusoria fulmina, “harmless thunderbolts.”
“Il les resveille tout soudain, et leur fait bien sentir leur folie.” — “He awakes them all on a sudden, and makes them deeply feel their folly.”