The Virgin Birth Clarified
“And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (1:21)
As if to reinforce the truth of Jesus’ divine conception, the angel tells Joseph that she will bear a Son. Joseph would act as Jesus’ earthly father, but he would only be a foster father. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus through Mary’s line accurately says He was “supposedly the son of Joseph” (3:23, emphasis added).
Joseph was told to name the Son … Jesus, just as Zacharias was told to name his son John (Luke 1:13). We are not told the purpose or significance of John’s name, but that of Jesus was made clear even before His birth. Jesus is a form of the Hebrew Joshua, Jeshua, or Jehoshua, the basic meaning of which is “Jehovah (Yahweh) will save.” All other men who had those names testified by their names to the Lord’s salvation. But this One who would be born to Mary not only would testify of God’s salvation, but would Himself be that salvation. By His own work He would save His people from their sins.
21. And thou shalt call his name Jesus. I have already explained briefly, but as far as was necessary, the meaning of that word. At present I shall only add, that the words of the angel set aside the dream of those who derive it from the essential name of God, Jehovah; for the angel expresses the reason why the Son of God is so called, Because he shall save his people; which suggests quite a different etymology from what they have contrived. It is justly and appropriately added, they tell us, that Christ will be the author of salvation, because he is the Eternal God. But in vain do they attempt to escape by this subterfuge; for the nature of the blessing which God bestows upon us is not all that is here stated. This office was conferred upon his Son from the fact, from the command which had been given to him by the Father, from the office with which he was invested when he came down to us from heaven. Besides, the two words Ἰησοῦς and יהוה, Jesus and Jehovah, agree but in two letters, and differ in all the rest; which makes it exceedingly absurd to allege any affinity whatever between them, as if they were but one name. Such mixtures I leave to the alchymists, or to those who closely resemble them, the Cabalists, who contrive for us those trifling and affected refinements.
When the Son of God came to us clothed in flesh, he received from the Father a name which plainly told for what purpose he came, what was his power, and what we had a right to expect from him. For the name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew verb, in the Hiphil conjugation, הושיע, which signifies to save. In Hebrew it is pronounced differently, Jehoshua; but the Evangelists, who wrote in Greek, followed the customary mode of pronunciation; for in the writings of Moses, and in the other books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word יהושוע, Jehoshua, or Joshua, is rendered by the Greek translators Ἰησοῦς, Jesus. But I must mention another instance of the ignorance of those who derive—or, I would rather say, who forcibly tear—the name Jesus from Jehovah. They hold it to be in the highest degree improper that any mortal man should share this name in common with the Son of God, and make a strange outcry that Christ would never allow his name to be so profaned. As if the reply were not at hand, that the name Jesus was quite as commonly used in those days as the name Joshua. Now, as it is sufficiently clear that the name Jesus presents to us the Son of God as the Author of salvation, let us examine more closely the words of the angel.
He shall save his people from their sins. The first truth taught us by these words is, that those whom Christ is sent to save are in themselves lost. But he is expressly called the Saviour of the Church. If those whom God admits to fellowship with himself were sunk in death and ruin till they were restored to life by Christ, what shall we say of “strangers” (Eph. 2:12) who have never been illuminated by the hope of life? When salvation is declared to be shut up in Christ, it clearly implies that the whole human race is devoted to destruction. The cause of this destruction ought also to be observed; for it is not unjustly, or without good reason, that the Heavenly Judge pronounces us to be accursed. The angel declares that we have perished, and are overwhelmed by an awful condemnation, because we stand excluded from life by our sins. Thus we obtain a view of our corruption and depravity; for if any man lived a perfectly holy life, he might do without Christ as a Redeemer. But all to a man need his grace; and, therefore, it follows that they are the slaves of sin, and are destitute of true righteousness.
Hence, too, we learn in what way or manner Christ saves; he delivers us from sins. This deliverance consists of two parts. Having made a complete atonement, he brings us a free pardon, which delivers us from condemnation to death, and reconciles us to God. Again, by the sanctifying influences of his Spirit, he frees us from the tyranny of Satan, that we may live “unto righteousness,” (1 Peter 2:24.) Christ is not truly acknowledged as a Saviour, till, on the one hand, we learn to receive a free pardon of our sins, and know that we are accounted righteous before God, because we are free from guilt; and till, on the other hand, we ask from him the Spirit of righteousness and holiness, having no confidence whatever in our own works or power. By Christ’s people the angel unquestionably means the Jews, to whom he was appointed as Head and King; but as the Gentiles were shortly afterwards to be ingrafted into the stock of Abraham, (Rom. 11:17,) this promise of salvation is extended indiscriminately to all who are incorporated by faith in the “one body” (1 Cor. 12:20) of the Church.
21 It was no doubt divine grace that solicited Mary’s cooperation before the conception and Joseph’s cooperation only after it. Here Joseph is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation. In patriarchal times, either a mother (Ge 4:25) or a father (Ge 4:26; 5:3; cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 130) could name a child. According to Luke 1:31, Mary was told Jesus’ name, but Joseph was told both the name and the reason for it. The Greek is literally “you will call his name Jesus,” strange in both English and Greek. Not only is this a Semitism (BDF, para. 157 —the expression recurs in Mt 1:23, 25; Lk 1:13, 31); it uses the future indicative (kaleseis, lit., “you will call,” GK 2813) with imperatival force—hence the NIV, “You are to give him the name Jesus.” This construction is very rare in the NT, except where the LXX is being cited, and the effect is to give the verse a strong OT nuance.
“Jesus” (Iēsous, GK 2652) is the Greek form of “Joshua” (cf. Gk. of Ac 7:45; Heb 4:8), which, whether in the long form yehōšûaʿ (GK 3397, “Yahweh is salvation,” Ex 24:13) or in one of the short forms, e.g., yēs̆ûaʿ (“Yahweh saves,” Ne 7:7), identifies Mary’s son as the one who brings Yahweh’s promised eschatological salvation. There are several Joshuas in the OT, at least two of them not very significant (1 Sa 6:14; 2 Ki 23:8). Two others, however, are used in the NT as types of Christ: Joshua, successor to Moses and the one who led the people into the promised land (and a type of Christ in Heb 4), and Joshua the high priest, contemporary of Zerubbabel (Ezr 2:2; 3:2–9; Ne 7:7), “the Branch” who builds the temple of the Lord (Zec 6:11–13). But instead of referring to either of these, the angel explains the significance of the name by referring to Psalm 130:8: “He [Yahweh] himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 127–28).
There was much Jewish expectation of a Messiah who would “redeem” Israel from Roman tyranny and even purify his people, whether by fiat or appeal to law (e.g., Ps. Sol. 17). But there was no expectation that the Davidic Messiah would give his own life as a ransom (Mt 20:28) to save his people from their sins. The verb “save” (sōzō, GK 5392) can refer to deliverance from physical danger (8:25), disease (9:21–22), or even death (24:22); in the NT it commonly refers to the comprehensive salvation inaugurated by Jesus that will be consummated at his return. Here it focuses on what is central, namely, salvation from sins; for in the biblical perspective, sin is the basic (if not always the immediate) cause of all other calamities. This verse therefore orients the reader to the fundamental purpose of Jesus’ coming and the essential nature of the reign he inaugurates as King Messiah, heir of David’s throne (cf. Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 193, 201).
Though to Joseph “his people” would be the Jews, even Joseph would understand from the OT that some Jews fell under God’s judgment, while others became a godly remnant. In any event, it is not long until Matthew says that both John the Baptist (3:9) and Jesus (8:11) picture Gentiles joining with the godly remnant to become disciples of the Messiah and members of “his people” (see comments at 16:18; cf. Ge 49:10; Tit 2:13–14; Rev 14:4). The words “his people” are therefore full of meaning that is progressively unpacked as Matthew’s gospel unfolds. They refer to “Messiah’s people.”
21. She will give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All have an interest in the birth of this child: a. the Holy Spirit, by the exercise of whose power the child is conceived; b. Mary, who, being the willing instrument of the Spirit in conceiving and giving birth to the infant, becomes “blessed among women” (cf. Matt. 1:21 with Luke 1:42); and c. Joseph, who, along with Mary (Luke 1:31), is told to give the child a name; not just any name, however, but the name Jesus. That name has already been explained (see on 1:1), but even if it had not, no more adequate explanation is possible than the one offered by the angel, namely, “he will save.” Whom will he save? Not everybody but “his people” (cf. John 3:16), “his sheep” John 10:11).
It is ever God, God alone, who in and through his Son, saves his people. While some trust in chariots and some in horses (Ps. 20:7), in physical strength, knowledge, reputation, prestige, position, magnificent and impressive machinery, influential friends, and intrepid generals, none of these, whether operating singly or in conjunction with all the others, is able to deliver man from his chief enemy, the foe that is little by little destroying his very heart, namely, sin; or, as here, sins, those of thought, word, and deed; of omission, commission, and inner disposition: all those various ways in which man “misses the mark,” God’s glory. It takes no less than the atoning death of Jesus and the sanctifying power of his Spirit to cleanse hearts and lives.
The marked and prevailing emphasis which, already in the Old Testament, is placed upon the fact that God is sovereign and that he alone can save is evident from such passages as Gen. 49:18; 2 Kings 19:15–19; 2 Chron. 14:11; 20:5–12; Ps. 3:8; 25:5; 37:39; 62:1; 81:1; Isa. 12:2; Jer. 3:23; Lam. 3:26; Dan. 4:35; Mic. 7:7; Hab. 3:18; Zech. 4:6; and a host of other passages equally clear and precious. In the New Testament the emphasis is just as strong, as appears from Matt. 19:28; 28:18; Luke 12:32; 18:13, 27; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 2:12, 13; Rev. 1:18; 3:7; 5:9; 19:1, 6, 16; etc.
To be saved means a. to be emancipated from the greatest evil: the guilt, pollution, power, and punishment of sin; and b. to be placed in possession of the greatest good. Although in the present passage the negative alone is expressed, namely, to save—from sin, the positive is immediately implied. One cannot be saved from something without also being saved for something: true happiness, the peace of God that transcends all understanding, freedom, joy unspeakable and full of glory, answered prayers, effective witness bearing, assurance of salvation, etc. On the concept salvation see also N.T.C. on 1 Tim. 1:15. The promise of the angel to Joseph, then, is this, that this child must be called Jesus—meaning, in brief, Savior—because in the fullest and most glorious sense he will save his people from their sins.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, p. 18). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 1, pp. 97–99). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 101). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 132–133). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.