Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
34. And Mary said to the angel, How shall this be, since I know not a man? 35. And the angel answering said to her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which shall be born shall be called the Son of God. 36. And, behold, Elisabeth thy cousin, even she hath conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month to her who was called barren: 37. For no word shall be impossible with God. 38. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
34. How shall this be? The holy virgin appears to confine the power of God within as narrow limits as Zacharias had formerly done; for what is beyond the common order of nature, she concludes to be impossible. She reasons in this manner. I know not a man: how then can I believe that what you tell me will happen? We ought not to give ourselves very much trouble, 28 to acquit her of all blame. She ought immediately to have risen by faith to the boundless power of God, which is not at all lettered to natural means, but sways the whole world. Instead of this, she stops at the ordinary way of generation. Still, it must be admitted that she does not hesitate or inquire in such a manner as to lower the power of God to the level of her senses; but is only carried away by a sudden impulse of astonishment to put this question. That she readily embraced the promise may be concluded from this, that, though many things presented themselves on the opposite side, she has no doubt but on one point.
She might instantly have objected, where was that throne of David? for all the rank of kingly power had been long ago set aside, and all the luster of royal descent had been extinguished. Unquestionably, if she had formed her opinion of the matter according to the judgment of the flesh, she would have treated as a fable what the angel had told her. There can be no doubt that she was fully convinced of the restoration of the church, and easily gave way to what the flesh would have pronounced to be incredible. And then it is probable that the attention of the public was everywhere directed at that time to the prediction of Isaiah, in which God promises that he would raise up a rod out of the despised stem of Jesse, (Isa 11:1.) That persuasion of the kindness of God, which had been formed in the mind of the virgin, led her to admit, in the fullest manner, that she had received a message as to raising up anew the throne of David. If it be objected that there was also another prediction, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, (Isa 7:14,) I reply, that this mystery was then very imperfectly understood. True, the Fathers expected the birth of a King, under whose reign the people of God would be happy and prosperous; but the manner of its accomplishment lay concealed, as if it had been hidden by a veil. There is no wonder, therefore, if the holy virgin puts a question on a subject hitherto unknown to her.
The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews.
We must reply, however, to another objection, that the virgin refers to the future, and so declares that she will have no intercourse with a man. The probable and simple explanation is, that the greatness or rather majesty of the subject made so powerful an impression on the virgin, that all her senses were bound and locked up in astonishment. When she is informed that the Son of God will be born, she imagines something unusual, and for that reason leaves conjugal intercourse out of view. Hence she breaks out in amazement, How shall this be? And so God graciously forgives her, and replies kindly and gently by the angel, because, in a devout and serious manner, and with admiration of a divine work, she had inquired how that would be, which, she was convinced, went beyond the common and ordinary course of nature. In a word, this question was not so contrary to faith, because it arose rather from admiration than from distrust.
35. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee The angel does not explain the manner, so as to satisfy curiosity, which there was no necessity for doing. He only leads the virgin to contemplate the power of the Holy Spirit, and to surrender herself silently and calmly to his guidance. The word ἐπελεύσεται, shall come upon, denotes that this would be an extraordinary work, in which natural means have no place. The next clause is added by way of exposition, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: for the Spirit may be regarded as the essential power of God, whose energy is manifested and exerted in the entire government of the world, as well as in miraculous events. There is an elegant metaphor in the word ἐπισκιάσει, overshadow. The power of God, by which he guards and protects his own people, is frequently compared in Scripture to a shadow, (Ps 17:8; Ps 57:1; Ps 91:1.) But it appears to have another and peculiar meaning in this passage. The operation of the Spirit would be secret, as if an intervening cloud did not permit it to be beheld by the eyes of men. Now, as God, in performing miracles, withholds from us the manner of his proceedings, so what he chooses to conceal from us ought to be viewed, on our part, with seriousness and adoration.
Therefore also the holy thing which shall be born This is a confirmation of the preceding clause: for the angel shows that Christ must not be born by ordinary generation, 29 that he may be holy, and that he may be the Son of God; that is, that in holiness and glory he may be high above all creatures, and may not hold an ordinary rank among men. Heretics, who imagine that he became the Son of God after his human generation, seize on the particle therefore as meaning that he would be called the Son of God, because he was conceived in a remarkable manner by the power of the Holy Spirit. But this is a false conclusion: for, though he was manifested to be the Son of God in the flesh, it does not follow that he was not the Word begotten of the Father before the ages. On the contrary, he who had been the Son of God in his eternal Godhead, appeared also as the Son of God in human flesh. This passage not only expresses a unity of person in Christ, but at the same time points out that, in clothing himself with human flesh, Christ is the Son of God. As the name, Son of God, belonged to the divine essence of Christ from the beginning, so now it is applied unitedly to both natures, because the secret and heavenly manner of generation has separated him from the ordinary rank of men. In other passages, indeed, with the view of asserting that he is truly man, he calls himself the Son of man, (Joh 5:27;) but the truth of his human nature is not inconsistent with his deriving peculiar honor above all others from his divine generation, having been conceived out of the ordinary way of nature by the Holy Spirit. This gives us good reason for growing confidence, that we may venture more freely to call God our Father, because his only Son, in order that we might have a Father in common with him, chose to be our brother.
It ought to be observed also that Christ, because he was conceived by a spiritual power, is called the holy seed For, as it was necessary that he should be a real man, in order that he might expiate our sins, and vanquish death and Satan in our flesh; so was it necessary, in order to his cleansing others, that he should be free from every spot and blemish, (1Pe 1:19.) Though Christ was formed of the seed of Abraham, yet he contracted no defilement from a sinful nature; for the Spirit of God kept him pure from the very commencement: and this was done not merely that he might abound in personal holiness, but chiefly that he might sanctify his own people. The manner of conception, therefore, assures us that we have a Mediator separate from sinners, (Heb 7:26.)
36. And, behold, Elisabeth thy cousin By an instance taken from her own relatives, the angel encourages the faith of Mary to expect a miracle. If neither the barrenness nor the old age of Elisabeth could prevent God from making her a mother, there was no better reason why Mary should confine her view within the ordinary limits of nature, when she beheld such a demonstration of divine power in her cousin He mentions expressly the sixth month; because in the fifth month a woman usually feels the child quicken in the womb, so that the sixth month removes all doubt. True, Mary ought to have placed such a reliance on the bare word of God as to require no support to her faith from any other quarter; but, to prevent farther hesitation, the Lord condescends to strengthen his promise by this new aid. With equal indulgence does he cheer and support us every day; nay, with greater indulgence, because our faith is weaker. That we may not doubt his truth, testimonies to confirm it are brought by him from every direction.
A question arises, how Elisabeth, who was of the daughters of Aaron, (Lu 1:5,) and Mary, who was descended from the stock of David, could be cousins This appears to be at variance with the law, which prohibited women from marrying into a different tribe from their own, (Nu 36:6.) With respect to the law, if we look at its object, it forbade those intermarriages only which might “remove inheritances from tribe to tribe,” (Nu 36:7.) No such danger existed, if any woman of the tribe of Judah married a priest, to whom an inheritance could not be conveyed. The same argument would hold if a woman of the tribe of Levi passed into another tribe. It is possible that the mother of the holy virgin might be descended from the family of Aaron, and so her daughter might be cousin to Elisabeth.
37. For no word shall be impossible with God If we choose to take ῥη̑μα, word, in its strict and native sense, the meaning is, that God will do what he hath promised, for no hinderance can resist his power. The argument will be, God hath promised, and therefore he will accomplish it; for we ought not to allege any impossibility in opposition to his word But as a word often means a thing in the idiom of the Hebrew language, (which the Evangelists followed, though they wrote in Greek,) 30 we explain it more simply, that nothing is impossible with God We ought always, in- deed, to hold it as a maxim, that they wander widely from the truth who, at their pleasure, imagine the power of God to be something beyond his word; for we ought always to contemplate his boundless power, that it may strengthen our hope and confidence. But it is idle, and unprofitable, and even dangerous, to argue what God can do unless we also take into account what he resolves to do. The angel does here what God frequently does in Scripture, employs a general doctrine to confirm one kind of promise. This is the true and proper use of a general doctrine, to apply its scattered promises to the present subject, whenever we are uneasy or distressed; for so long as they retain their general form, they make little impression upon us. We need not wonder if Mary is reminded by the angel of the power of God; for our distrust of it diminishes very greatly our confidence in the promises. All acknowledge in words that God is Almighty; but, if he promises any thing beyond what we are able to comprehend, we remain in doubt. 31 Whence comes this but from our ascribing to his power nothing more than what our senses receive? Thus Paul, commending the faith of Abraham, says, that he
“gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that what he had promised he was able also to perform,” (Rom. 4:20, 21.)
In another passage, speaking of the hope of eternal life, he sets before him the promise of God. “I know,” says he,
“whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him,” (2Ti 1:12.)
This may seem to be a small portion of faith; for no man, however wicked, openly denies God’s claim to be Almighty. But he who has the power of God firmly and thoroughly fixed in his heart will easily surmount the other obstacles which present themselves to faith. It ought to be observed, however, that the power of God is viewed by true faith, if I may use the expression, as efficacious 32 For God is and wishes to be acknowledged as powerful, that by the accomplishment itself he may prove his faithfulness.
38. Behold the handmaid of the Lord The holy virgin does not allow herself to dispute any farther: and yet many things might unquestionably have obtruded themselves, to repress that faith, and even to draw off her attention from what was said to her by the angel. But she stops the entrance of opposing arguments, and compels herself to obey. This is the real proof of faith, when we restrain our minds, and, as it were, hold them captive, so that they dare not reply this or that to God: for boldness in disputing, on the other hand, is the mother of unbelief. These are weighty expressions, Behold the handmaid of the Lord: for she gives and devotes herself unreservedly to God, that he may freely dispose of her according to his pleasure. Unbelievers withdraw from his hand, and, as far as lies in their power, obstruct his work: but faith presents us before God, that we may be ready to yield obedience. But if the holy virgin was the handmaid of the Lord, because she yielded herself submissively to his authority, there cannot be worse obstinacy than to fly from him, and to refuse that obedience which he deserves and requires. In a word, as faith alone makes us obedient servants to God, and gives us up to his power, so unbelief makes us rebels and deserters. Be it unto me This clause may be interpreted in two ways. Either the holy virgin, leaving her former subject, 33 betakes herself suddenly to prayers and supplications; or, she proceeds in the same strain 34 to yield and surrender herself to God. I interpret it simply that she is convinced of the power of God, follows cheerfully where he calls, trusts also to his promise, and not only expects, but eagerly desires, its accomplishment. [We must also observe that she is convinced on the word of the angel, because she knows that it proceeded from God: valuing its credit, not with reference to him who was its messenger, but with reference to him who was its author. 35 ]
“Nec vero magnopere laborandum est.” This is bold language, and must have sounded harsh and irreverent to a Popish ear: but in his French version Calvin uses still less ceremony. “We must not tease ourselves much to find out a way of vindicating her entirely“ — “Or il ne nous faut pas beaucoup tormenter a trouver facon de la justifier entierement.” — Ed.
“Christum opportere absque viri et mulieris coitu nasci.”
“Laquelle ont suivie les Evangelistes, combien qu'ils escrivissent en Grec.” — Fr.
“Haesitamus.” — “We are in a state of uncertainty, without being able to convince ourselves of it.” — “Nous sommes en branle sans pouvoir nous y asseurer.” — Fr.
“Effectualem.” — “We must observe that true faith apprehends the power of God, not in the air, but with its results.” — “Il faut noter que la vraye foy apprehende la puissance de Dieu, non point en l'alr, mais avec ses effects.”
“Laissant son premier propos.”
“Uno contextu.” — “En continuant le fil de son propos.”
“Il faut aussi noter qu'elle s'asseure sur la parole de l'Ange, par ce qu'elle sait qu'elle est procedee de Dieu: pesant la dignite d'icelle non a cause de celuy qui en estoit le messager, mais a cause de celui qui en estoit l'autheur.”